Deacon Evan Freeman: Good evening. My name is Deacon Evan Freeman. Can you hear me? Is that too loud, not loud enough? It’s good? Okay. I’m pleased to welcome everyone to St. Vladimir’s Seminary tonight, and I’m very pleased and honored to introduce our very special guest. Maggie Gobran was born in Upper Egypt in a town called Nag Hammadi. She’s a Coptic Orthodox Christian who for many years worked as a marketing executive and a university professor of computer science at the American University in Cairo, but in 1989 Professor Gobran left all the prestige and success of her business and academic careers behind in order to devote her life to serving the poor residents living in Egypt’s garbage slums.
Mama Maggie, as she is affectionately known by the many families and children she has helped, founded the charity Stephen’s Children, named for St. Stephen the First Martyr. The holistic approach of Stephen’s Children seeks to meet the spiritual, physical, and practical needs of the poor. Stephen’s Children offers such services as schools and camps for children, literacy classes for women, medical services for those who would otherwise not receive healthcare, and job training for the unemployed. The majority of the poor who live in Egypt’s garbage slums are Coptic Christians, but Stephen’s Children serves Christians and Muslims alike.
The spiritual work of Stephen’s Children has also borne remarkable fruit, producing witnesses for Christ who have quite literally given their lives to proclaim his Gospel. Seven of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded in 2015 were former students of Mama Maggie’s schools, children she knew by name and taught and served.
Mama Maggie’s visionary leadership has guided Stephen’s Children for several decades now, touching over 30,000 families with the love of Christ. The importance of her work is widely recognized, even outside of Egypt and the Church. She is often called the Mother Teresa of Cairo and has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Tonight we are honored to welcome Mama Maggie to St. Vladimir’s Seminary and to hear a little bit about her ministry. Please join me in welcoming Mama Maggie. [Applause]
Professor Maggie Gobran: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices, for God is my Savior. Thank you. One of my first visits to the poor areas in Cairo, I was shocked and stayed awake three nights. I couldn’t sleep. I was sick only from the smell, and I was crying and asking God, “How come you are merciful God, and many of these children, they pass away before they are five years old?” No clean water, no sewage service, no roads, no schools, no churches. I took my Bible and started to read from the beginning to the end, and said, “God, I will not leave you until you reveal yourself to me.”
In the middle of my readings it was a clear call that it was my turn to do something for them. Many times, we think of the poor that they need our help, but I must witness today. We went to help them to have a better life; they helped us to be better people. So they have treasures. They have the Creed around them. If you want to touch God, touch the poor, the needy. You will discover a new dimension for life. Life is full of mystery, and you here, I must say that I am coming to take your blessings, because you made good choices to be here. Everyone knows what type of college is this, and anyone who came here, who came with the special call, a good call, for your life.
I asked one of the monks in Egypt, “Why did you choose this life?” and he said something I don’t think I will ever forget. He told me, “Do you know something better?” I want each one of you who are here to know you are choosing the best, even if it is challenging. May God bless you. Do you know, we don’t choose where or when to be born, and I didn’t choose the family I was born in, and these poor children, they didn’t choose, right? But we don’t choose: I have to do something good with our life—or just to let it go? One day it will finish, and I think: What have I done with my life?
You know, my [duty] was either to be a sinner or a saint, which was rather to be nobody or a hero. When I speak about hero, I don’t mean someone who gets the microphone and stands in the middle of the square and talk to people to follow him. I don’t mean that. I mean the real hero, between you and your God, that no one else would know, but because of little sacrifices that you do, you will be a blessing to many people around you that you don’t know. Only in heaven will we go and say thank you to everyone who has been a blessing to our life.
When I was in a church and a young boy came to me—he was so handsome and elegant—and he said: Mama, you don’t remember me? I was one of your children. I want you to be happy. Before I came to the camp, I was about to commit suicide, so I said: Okay, after this trip, when I come back, I’ll do that. And when I came to the camp, my life has been changed, and now I’m successful. It was you [who] taught me: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This is the key for every human. You can, I can, because I’m not alone. I have the Almighty. Through Jesus Christ, I can. When I ask a young boy: what is your dream in life, what do you want to achieve? He goes like this: nothing. I asked him, “You don’t want anything?” He said, “My father was a failure, and probably I’ll be like him.” To kill your dream, your own dream, you’re killing your whole life. So what we are doing is trying to help everyone to find his own dream, his own self back.
Do you know, the great saints, it’s not only the great work they did in this world; it was mainly they stayed connected with the divine power all the time. And we need to learn this from the saints.
When I was young, I had a dream: what is life all about. I thought life is to be happy. When I grow up, I found that life is giving; it’s the art of giving. It’s always to think and to have the character that you always dare to help someone else. These are the real heroes. To do something beyond your own limitation, to help someone else. I believe you are the heroes. You are the one that has been chosen. You are the ones God blessed. You are taking the road that is… not many people in the world today would follow it. That’s why you are different.
If your own goodness is hidden from you, what can you offer the world around you? If your own truth is hidden from you, how can you be true with them, with the people around you? If your own beauty is hidden from you, how can you do something beautiful to the world? I think we all need to go back to our own saints. My own St. Isaac of Syria, he said the one who knows himself is better than the one who could see angels, because this one can see with the physical eyes; the first one will see with his spiritual eyes. The one who knows himself got all the knowledge that he needs, and we need to go back and spend time more in front of God, and say, “God, reveal yourself to me so I can come to be myself and know myself.” Other than that, the world will try to shape you in a way that [is] what they want you to be, so don’t allow the world to shape your life. Let your life shape the world around you.
Let me take just one last part that was a great revelation from God. We all need wisdom, and the wisdom of the world means nothing compared to the wisdom of God. So we need him and his wisdom. Wisdom is better than life, than power, than beauty. Without wisdom, we can have everything and lose everything. So we all need wisdom. Wisdom comes from discipline. Wisdom comes from discipline, and discipline brings true love. Love comes when you respect the commitment of love, brings purity in your life. And with the real purity, you come near to God. When you are near to God, nothing in this world—nothing—can conquer you.
Tonight I would like you to reflect on who you really are in God’s eyes. You are a beat of God’s heart to this world. You are full of love. You are his sons and daughters. I hope that you will take this [hint] from outside when you are coming in. It is wonderful to say that someone else said. The Son of God became the Son of man in order that man would become the son of God.
You are blessed. You are here. So don’t waste your time with things that [don’t] belong to you. You are a son of God, truly. Go and shine to the world. You are a daughter of God. Shine his love. The secret of life, true life, is in you. It’s inside; your treasure is in you. Don’t allow this world to steal it from you.
I will say, because you are here in this place, it’s a blessed place, and we are praying for you, and we need you to be healers. And we love you, because one day you will celebrate your life. That’s why we ask you: Remember, please try to add value to life every day.
Do you know how many people in the world would have loved to be in your place today, tonight? Millions and millions. You are in the best place in the world, having the best chance in the world, having the best teachers, colleagues, and friends. Don’t look around you; look inside. Listen to God, and he will get your beauty crystallized in this world.
How do you add value to life every day? Learn something new every day; don’t let the day go by without learning something new. The best place to learn something really worth learning is your Bible. You will have a new revelation. The same verse, the same place that you will read many times, every time you feel there is something for you, especially coming at this point.
Second thing to do every day: learn and love. Learn means to give, so try to give something nice to someone every day: anything, any small thing. Maybe a word, maybe you call someone: call your mother and tell her thank you for who you are. Maybe you call your colleague; maybe you find someone whom you feel is neglected and you call him and say, “I’m praying for you. We love you. We respect you. We appreciate you.” Or maybe at the back of your colleague, when someone is really kind of a naughty boy? You will stop it. You will say, “Don’t look around. He is good at this and that,” even without him knowing. Because you will have an angel who is writing down everything you do and say.
And I would like to encourage you: Don’t ever feel threatened with other feelings in any way. No one in this world can take what’s yours. When you open John 3:27, it says, “No one can take anything unless it’s given to him from above.” He knows exactly what is yours; he wants to give you what belongs to you. So don’t care about what other people say or try to take. He knows exactly your place, and he is the one who’s going to reward you. So don’t waste your energy, your time. You are unique, and every one is unique. No one else in the whole world is like you. You will never be repeated, never. That’s why every day counts. Your uniqueness cannot take from my uniqueness. My uniqueness cannot take your uniqueness. The way you think, the way you are created, the way you love, the way you have fingerprint or eyeprint—you are unique in every way. Be happy with what you have, because he is the one who’s going to reward you, and if other people will try to take what is yours, they will never be rewarded. He knows, right? So be happy, be joyful with what you have. Be encouraged. Say, “Yes, I’m going to do that.”
So read your Bible. Give and forgive. Forgive. I heard someone saying, “I am a master in letting go.” I don’t care what people do; I’m a master.” Let go, let go, let go. Don’t ever, ever feel that you cannot forgive. It’s like a ready-made crown for you when you forgive.
The last thing I would like to share with you: Try to find the secrets of the saints, how they become saints. Number one, they spent time alone with God. That’s why it’s important to think of silence. In our country, we go to the desert and learn from the Desert Fathers. Their life will live forever. Do you know St. Anthony the Great? He was the founder of the monastic life in Egypt, and then it spread all over the world. Do you know, around the end of his life, 107 young people followed his steps. 50 years after his life, half the population of the country followed his steps. One life turned things upside-down.
So there are three secrets in the lives of the saints. If you are not a saint it yet, be friends with the saints. Maybe from their books, from their lives, if they ask anything. If you are not yet holy, live among the holy. If you are not humble enough, live among the humble, and learn their ways. Let’s talk about silence. It’s not a waste of time; it’s the most precious part of your life.
One of the saints said: to silence your body means to stay some time in a silent place so you can listen to your words. Silence your words, and you listen to your thoughts. Silence your thoughts, you will listen to your heart beating. And when you silence your heart from the many, many ideas that is coming to you every day on this earth, you listen to your spirit. When you silence your spirit, you will listen to the Holy Spirit. I think we all need to learn that. So it’s two things in life: You either go and help someone or go and learn. When you start practicing the silence, one day you will reach [your people] who are in heaven. You can see things that busy people don’t have time to see. You will sing among the seraphim and cherubim; you will sing with the angelic choir. You will be in the presence of the Almighty, with Jesus Christ.
You know God will never fail you. Without God, you will never succeed. May God bless you. Thank you. [Applause]
Dn. Evan: Thank you, Mama Maggie. We have time for questions. If you would like to ask Mama Maggie a question, please come up to the microphone right here. It’s one of those mics you have to speak right into it, so get very close. If you think you’re too close, that’s right where you need to be. And if you’re shy, I’ll ask your question.
Q1: Mama Maggie, you talked a lot about knowing oneself, knowing one’s goodness, knowing one’s beauty, so we can serve others in these ways in his ways, finding silence. How do you do that? Many of us here are students and we have lots of homework, lots of classes. We’re parents of little kids. In a place like America we have smart phones and Netflix and all these distractions. How do we find time or a place, really [in our busy lives], how do we do that?
Mama Maggie: This is a very difficult question. [Laughter] We need to ask God to answer this question. How can you, in your busy, busy, busy schedule? You stop and read. Make it a priority. Do you know, if you are running in the car or very fast, you cannot pick many of the ads that you see. If you have running water, if you look, you cannot see your face. It has to be still and quiet, and then you will start to see. Many times, we can spend ten minutes with God. When I don’t have an answer, I move my time. I have to go. I don’t think this is silence. What we’re talking about is the commitment in your life, whatever commitment you take, and be consistent in it. You will find the fruit waiting for you.
So if you reserve 20 minutes to read the Bible in a quiet place by yourself every day, after ten years, you will find miracles happening, and you don’t know how or why—because you are consistent in honoring God in one way or another. In 20 minutes, you will finish four chapters. Before one year, you will start to feel like your whole life is changing, and even the people around you will comment: What did you do? Why are you thinking this way? Why things are changing? I tell you, the secret is in the 20 minutes of your commitment. I think this is something that we all can do, because we are supposed to read in God’s book. We have children who cannot read and write, so I cannot share this with them until they know how to read, but you know how to read. You just have four chapters every day. No matter how busy, no matter how [much of a] scholar you are, keep this for yourself.
I was sharing this in Europe in one of the countries, and the priest of this place stood up and said, “From today, I’m going to read the Bible every day for myself, 20 minutes.” And then before one year, they elected him to be a bishop for 21 other churches. I’ve heard this for many, many people who took this step, because it’s like a serious commitment from your side to tell God, “I love you, too. I have 20 minutes for you. Tell me anything you want through your word. Your word…” His word will make you a wise man, a wise woman.
I started this way, just committing myself to read it on a regular basis. The enemy… The best weapon to do something and be consistent. He wants to stop you in any way he can, because he knows: this is your treasure. We all can do that. If we have a new generation in our churches, that they are all committed for 20 minutes, I believe and you believe, this will be a good Christian generation. If we do everything we can, without his word, we can lose our steps in the middle of the way. So the best thing is to start with something little: 20 minutes. And then, if you can, once a week, take time. Take a longer time, if you can. But there is time that you will look back into your life and say: I owe something to myself. I need to be alone: during the weekend, once a month, whatever God will need you. But take the chance, and tell him: Lord, please. I’m serious; I do love you. Show me what will be my next step.
So everything in life we can get gradually, step by step, one step at a time. I cannot live here and go and say: I’m going to spend a whole year in silence. Some people can do that, but I don’t think this is our mission now. Our mission is to reserve part from every day between you and your God. And then, because you enjoy it so much, because you can start to see his face shining with joy on you, you want more time. So you will replan your priorities.
I saw Jesus in the poor children looking at me. I saw Jesus in his words, blessing me without me noticing, changing me. So my prayer: as God has blessed me, I want him to bless everyone who comes in touch with me or these children. Thank you.
Q2: Mama Maggie, I was in Egypt nine years ago, and I remember [Inaudible] very, very well, and how frightening it was. What is it like today? How do they endure the suffering of going to school these past several years?
Mama Maggie: I want to thank you very much for that. Thank you for caring about other people. I think it is something unique inside you, because when you visit a place, you don’t forget it. This shows that, God, I have a place in my heart everywhere you send me to everyone that comes into my life. So this is for noticing, thank you for who you are.
And about Egypt, we thank God for the new government now with the new president, but many things have been changed since nine years. In the economy situation, you really feel the hunger for bread. We have around 15,000 children in our schools who come without having any breakfast, and they leave school around three o’clock without having anything to eat. Can you imagine a child, from three to six or seven years, without anything to eat the whole day? And the mothers say: If you take lunch, you cannot take dinner; you leave it for your brothers. So it’s not easy. No one can say a word about it except the one who’s living it. To feel hungry every day.
We worked in the camp one day and we had children who found a piece of chicken, so they wanted to take it and put it in their pocket. We asked them why. They say: My brothers at home, they don’t have this food. So they are really, really hungry. When Jesus said in Matthew 25: Whatever you do to the least, you are doing it to me. “I was hungry and you fed me.” This is always with my heart. We need to feed the children everywhere, not only in Egypt. We all feel hungry and we all want food, and we all need it; the body needs it. And it’s up to us to share what we have. Thank you for caring. God bless you.
Q3: We have a bit of a problem in trying to convince teenagers that when they decide for themselves in a few years to continue as Orthodox Christians, when their own mother and father don’t make them come to church. I wonder if you have words of wisdom of how to convince… What should we do to help them so that they will want to continue as Christians?
Mama Maggie: This is also a very important question. We need God’s wisdom. I think if we are committed today, tonight, for this weekend, to have these 20 minutes every day, then we can have the right to go to God and say: Give me back my children. Give me back my congregation. I am committed to you. I am spending the time alone with you, and I want you to speak to my heart, to change me. If you want to change the world, and this is, I think, the hope for this case, you are the light. You are here to change the world; otherwise, who else do we expect? You, you are the light, so I am taking a personal commitment, and I want to see miraculous results from God. He is the one that changes [us].
When we had many of these children, people would not believe that anything could change the lives of people who spend ten, fifteen years on the street, nobody cared for, didn’t go to school; they had no system whatsoever. Many businesspeople told me, when they looked where they lived, they said, “It’s a hopeless case. Don’t try.” I believe everything that can change—hearts and minds and lives—when I am changed, and I am ready to take the very simple step in spending 20 minutes with you every day. I am serious about it. I know, I have seen the result: before one year, you will see different results.
It’s like they ask Mother Teresa: What can we do to change, what is needed to change the Church? She said so clearly, “When I and you will be changed.” So it is our responsibility. When I am changed, when I committed tonight, tomorrow, after tomorrow this weekend, I don’t have time, but I will make it, reserve 20 minutes. Your children will see that. Your students will see it without you knowing.
I know a young man who was in Alexandria. He lost his mother when he was seven years old. 20 years later, he did everything wrong in life. He wanted to try everything. When he was 27 years old, trying to sleep one night by himself, nobody at home with him, he saw the image of his father, sitting, reading the Bible. He turned to the other side; he saw the same thing: his father, sitting, reading the Bible. He laid on his back, and he saw the same image: his father, sitting, reading the Bible. And he said, “How could a godly man like that have a son like me? I am so devilish after all these bad experiences.”
At that moment, he heard someone knocking at the door. When he opened the door, he found a priest. He told him: “Nothing’s wrong; nobody here asking for a priest” he said to the priest. He told him, “No, I heard you calling me. I think you need me.” So they sit together; they found they were colleagues in schools, and he started to cry and tell him how come he cannot accept himself this way any more. And he repented and started a new life, and now he’s a great servant for the Lord.
Without you knowing, your students, your colleagues, everything around you, they will feel this secret in your life, because you are honoring God. You cannot tell him, “I love you,” and run away. When I am committed, he is committed to change. He has more patience for the lost souls in this world than what we have. But we need to tell him, “Lord, I am committed. I will read my Bible every day, 20 minutes, four chapters, and I will finish it before one year. And do whatever you want in my life.” I think this is part of the solution. Thank you.
Q4: Mama Maggie, thank you so much for coming here to enlighten our hearts. Can you please share with us that very moment in your life where you made that choice, where you made that decision to turn from your old life to God?
Mama Maggie: Thank you for your beautiful heart and mind. Thank you for being here, all of you. I couldn’t do it by myself. I have always had people like you, who are really children of God. One day we will celebrate every life, but when it comes to a moment that you feel you have tried everything you like in this world—almost everything—and you feel you have one life, and you go to the best and the elite of the society and all kind of celebration, all these celebrations, and then you think: What’s next? What should I do? The world is too empty to give you the real fulfillment. I may say the world is too poor to give you something that will live with you forever. It’s all changing all the time. And you have one life and you have one day. There is a point where each life of us… that we stop and think: What can I do? I’m ready for anything now. I think God is waiting for this moment in each life.
It was the moment when you feel the ego inside you is dying: I’m not interested any more for anything for me. It’s the moment when you go to the poorest of the poor and begin to see they are rich in their faith. They have something, the Creator is around them, whatever I touch from the poor, I’m touching Him. And this gives me joy I never experienced in this life. So I cannot live without the poor. They are the source of happiness. It is a choice. I either take something to make me happy for a moment, for an hour, or long-term happiness. I think it’s a choice for all of us, right?
Many times we are excited, excited, and then we find we are still empty. It’s not what the people say about me. No, this doesn’t count. If the whole world will say something good about me and God knows my heart, it means nothing. If the whole world is against someone like Athanasius, as long as he is with God, this is the most important. I think we all need these moments in our lives, and it’s not once; it can be repeated. Every time we spend alone, and you leave many things behind you. Listen how God is changing your heart, your mind, your words. It’s not a big sacrifice not to go to parties, but when we started this ministry, one leader told me, “It’s a choice. You either choose to be socializing, as I used to do, or serving God.”
I think this choice is in the heart of every one else, each heart. Will I go to the party? Sometimes it’s true. They have their own way of living, or they have a different lifestyle. Even the people who are studying here, they are so busy; they need some time for themselves. God knows they are so busy, and he wants to see your priorities. So it’s the point when you feel: I have my life. Whatever I put in it, this is what stays with me. If I put water, I find water. If I put mud, I find mud. I don’t want to waste my life. I have one cup. What I am feeding? The word of God? This will purify me, will give me life. Thank you.
Q5: So when you asked God why there was so much suffering, what was his answer?
Mama Maggie: You are so clever, too smart for me. [Laughter] If I tell you, you will tell me what he answers to you one day?
Mama Maggie: Yes. [Laughter] I think without suffering we cannot be purified. It’s like no suffering, no growth. And many times, because I am so weak, I cannot suffer like what I’ve seen the children suffering, the very hungry, the very sick, the very naked. I think God allows me to take their blessings to come upon me because they put it on someone that they are suffering. It’s like sharing their blessings. So they didn’t know that they are the ones who are bringing blessings to us.
I think the same here. If we ask the parents of the children for anything, to do something for them, even small things, and they are still distribute it, and they say to people: Go do something, they will be touched, because they will have the heart of giving, of caring for someone. So we make it in different activities, but make it exactly what Jesus did. Jesus chose a very young boy, whom nobody cared for, who had the fish and the loaves of bread. So we choose our children and give them a small parcel of food and say: Go to the street, go to a certain place where there are homeless, and give this. And because of this, they will practice something; God will honor that. He will put the hunger in their hearts to be different people, to come to the church, to do something together. Like Jesus, carrying his cross: he is God; he could have made it without any help, but he asks someone to come carry with me. So he’s asking all of us: Come and carry and take the blessings of the cross, of the suffering. I believe God is in the suffering of today, because it is our chance to take the blessings, I think. God bless you.
Olga: Mama Maggie, I just wanted to ask, when you first saw the slums, saw all these suffering and dying people, how did you know…? What were your first impressions? Because I feel that if I went to a place where everyone was dying and hungry and with diseases… First I’d pray, of course I’d read the Bible, but there’s no time to be a mystery and walk around and make them notice how you are changed; you have to take active actions. But at the same time, if there are so many, how do you help properly? How do you not hurt a person? Because touching a person, I feel, is a very great responsibility, touching another person’s life. So how did you figure out what to do next?
Mama Maggie: What’s your name?
Olga: My name is Olga.
Mama Maggie: Olga. Thank you, Olga. Maybe you can come one day, because really, when you come, you feel things. It’s like God will open your heart and for things you never thought you could do. You could do it, like offering a meal to a hungry child. I never thought I would do this, or could, even. To clean the floor for children, I never thought I could do it. So it’s like God in you will open your eyes and give you the ability to do things you never thought you could do. So please, if you don’t have poor around you here, think always of the poor, and the need is in every heart, in every human being. So we can call someone: he needs you at that time. We can visit someone. We can make food for someone. We can visit hospitals.
Many, many ways, but it depends what God is putting in your heart, because what is appropriate for you, your mission is different from someone else’s mission. But be ready to do something. Don’t say, “It was very nice tonight,” go home and sleep; at work tomorrow, forget everything. It’s not that life. It’s my life, it’s your life, and we are the hands, you are the hands, the real hands. You think the world will be changed or start to be changed with some other groups? Who will it be? Not other religions, of course, not other denominations, I don’t know. So you here, God put you to know and remember: you are the hands. You are writing together the story of salvation for the world. By little commitments in each one of us. I don’t know your commitment; you don’t know her commitment. Small sacrifices: God will honor that, and he will show you the fruit. God bless you.
So step by step with small things. I want you to know that even the poor children, they love being [up here] today, because sometimes they see things they are not used to and aren’t used to it. So it’s okay. It’s okay to be open to whatever God will open in front of you. If he opens for you to travel, travel; if he opens for you to come to the church and help the people here in anything, please do that. If he opens for you to read the Bible, and from there you will begin to change and do something else. I cannot carry the burden of the whole world, but I can move one step different than yesterday. [Inaudible] [Applause]